The 'trip to Australia' described in the last chapter fulfilled a long held desire.
Soon after Geoff Renner assumed executive responsibility for Aboriginal Programs at World Vision Australia in the late 1980s, he gave an address to staff. He drew from many sources, including the book Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines Since 1788. His presentation revealed to me, for the first time in my life, information about the genocide committed by my forebears (or their compatriots) against Australia's original inhabitants.
I was shocked. I felt betrayed by an education system and mass media which had a monumental blind spot.
I discovered that historical revisionism was not merely a feature of totalitarian regimes in distant and bizarre places, but a feature of Australian society.
I had grown up believing myself to be a moderate, liberal, well informed white Australian. I deplored the media's emphasis on the negative images of indigenous Australians. Yet I could not understand how Aborigines could let themselves down with violence, alcoholism and a failure to grasp the many opportunities that white society seemed to offer them.
I had a blind spot myself and I didn't realise it.
As I worked with World Vision over the years I discovered some things about the poor, but it took me a little longer to apply these lessons to my own country.
First, I discovered the common humanity I had with all humankind. Whether they were Vietnamese boat people, Chinese office workers in Hong Kong, Masai farmers in Kenya, angry South Africans in Soweto or carefree Californians in the United States, I discovered more things that bound us together as children of God than differentiated us as cultural beings. I still did not feel the same about my own indigenous countrymen and women.
Of course, I had met some extremely human Aborigines. Senator Neville Bonner and others who worked with World Vision. But looking back (and I cringe to admit it) I subconsciously saw such people as exceptions.
That is until I read Sally Morgan's book My Place.
The revelation of this book lay in the sheer humanity of its characters. They were not only real people. They were a lot like me. I readily embraced this revelation since it was absolutely consistent with my experience overseas. Now I could see, more profoundly, Aboriginal Australians as real brothers and sisters. I felt repentance and the need for forgiveness.
Second, as I worked at World Vision, I discovered that there was, in dozens of marginalised communities around the world, a pattern of institutionalised injustice and oppression. This pattern created dysfunction within the oppressed people themselves.
I saw this first in Uganda in the late 1970s when Idi Amin was driven out. Ugandan society had been so abused by Amin's murderous violence that revenge and killing had become a way of life. Later, in the Occupied Territories, I saw how the violence of the Palestinian people had emerged after their violent uprooting in 1948, and later in 1967.
In South Africa, I found a dispossessed and oppressed people reacting with violence themselves. I will never forget the almost palpable feeling of violence in a Soweto shebeen as I discussed life in the black communities.
The 12 Step Program of Oppression
In country after country, I discovered a common pattern:
1. An oppressor emerged.
2. The oppressor took away the people's homes, sometimes destroying them, often relocating the people.
3. The oppressed people lost most of their possessions.
4. They were crowded together into refugee camps or reserves.
5. By one means or another, often with apparently reasonable excuses, families were split up.
6. They were policed by military style forces, or government officials. Often a 'Ministry' for their affairs was created. This devised rules to control their lives. Only limited self-government was permitted, and often none. Where it existed it was highly controlled by the oppressors.
7. Myths were created about the oppressed people. They were labelled as dangerous and deviant (terrorists, barbaric, savage, lacking culture, lazy).
8. Very often the myth was created that the oppressed people had no true society before the oppressor stepping in (in Australia this myth was called terra nullius).
9. Some years on, the oppressed society became increasingly violent. Most of the violence was internal. Crime rates, especially crimes such as murder and assault, were twenty to fifty times greater than in mainstream society. This tended to confirm the myth that the oppressed people were lesser beings.
10. Often 'radical' groups emerged and attacked the mainstream society. This confirmed the myth that the oppressed society was dangerous.
11. The dominant society appeared to put money into services to 'help' the dysfunctional community, but much of this money appeared to do little good. Stories were common that the money was wasted.
12. Drug abuse (usually alcohol) was commonplace. This confirmed the myth that the people were lazy or incapable of self-control.
Of course, I also discovered many people within these oppressed communities preaching peace, reconciliation and love. They totally contradicted the myths and stereotypes around them. From them I realised that the true humanity of these societies must have been grossly distorted by some external force. Deep down, these people were very beautiful.
I came to understand that there was an intimate connection between the original oppression and the current state of these societies. To state it clearly, the original oppression had created the violence and dysfunctional aspects under which the oppressed communities laboured.
Although I discovered this in a dozen or more places outside Australia, it was only later that I came to see it applied to my own country and its indigenous people.
The arrival of the white settlers after 1788 was, for the Aborigines, an act of violence. It created their death and displacement. They became the dispossessed, refugees within their own land. Their homes, their cultures, their beliefs, their organisational structures were destroyed and replaced by anomie and alienation. And the result, in Australia just as it had been all around the world, was a dysfunctional, violent society.
Dealing With The Non-Aboriginal Problem
What I learned from my journey through Aboriginal Australia was that the real challenge for our country lies not with Aborigines, but with whites. I discovered the enormous capability of Aboriginal people to begin to get it right. But they would not. Indeed they could not. Not until non-Aboriginal society faced the original cause of their plight and then behaved differently in the light of that awareness.
We had to stop blaming the victims. Really stop. We had to realise we did not have an Aboriginal problem in Australia, any more than the South Africans had a black problem or the Israelis had a Palestinian problem. What we had in Australia was a non-Aboriginal problem.
We had created modern Aboriginal society in the image of our own oppression. It was therefore our responsibility to take whatever affirmative action was needed to change that reality.
What would this require? Since we caused the problem, I supposed we had better begin by looking at ourselves. We needed to change.
First, we needed to discover the true humanity of Aboriginal Australia. This would require encounter. Not merely the opportunity to meet an Aboriginal Australian (something too few white Australians have ever done) but also the opportunity to discover and value Aboriginal heritage. As Australians, it ought to be our heritage too.
This meant we needed an education system that honoured Aboriginal Australia, that taught its culture, that affirmed its contribution to national identity (an identity which did not just begin in 1770). We also needed a media that honoured Aboriginal Australia with positive images rather than the conscious and unconscious racism that pervaded much of it. This would help us, for example, to the difficult realisation that unconscious racism (as in sport) is still racism.
Second, we needed to support Aboriginal recovery. There was a lot of money around, yet too many really excellent Aboriginal programs were starved for funds. Not only that, but there was so little support for workers in Aboriginal communities (and especially for Aboriginal workers) that burnout and disillusionment were the biggest problems.
The Best Speech Ever Made By An Australian Prime Minister
My trip came at a time when world attention was being directed to such questions. Nineteen eighty-three was International Year of Indigenous People, and on 13 January The Koori Mail reported Prime Minister Paul Keating's speech at Redfern, NSW, launching Australia's celebration of the Year. It was titled 'Time to reflect, understand be sorry, and look ahead'. It was an important statement. Few Australians heard the best speech Mr Keating, or any Aussie Prime Minister, ever made:
More I think than most Australians recognise, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all ... We simply cannot sweep injustice aside. Even if our own conscience allowed us to, I am sure, that in due course, the world and the people of our region would not.
We non-Aboriginal Australians should perhaps remind ourselves that Australia once reached out for us. Didn't Australia provide opportunity and care for the dispossessed Irish? The poor of Britain? The refugees from war and famine and persecution in the countries of Europe and Asia?
... the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war, then were ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.
It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice, we can imagine the opposite.
Descended From Criminals
Finally, a word about my family history. For two weeks I tried to touch a culture that is tens of thousands of years old. My own family tradition also extends back that far, only I can't trace it much beyond two hundred years.
Richard Hunt was born in Winchester, England, on 29 March 1797. He came to Australia on a complimentary passage, along with his brother, convicted of the same crime, in 1817. He was, as they say, chosen for the journey by the best judges in England.
Richard Hunt was a victim. He was a member of the lowest class. Upper class British society had created myths about Richard's class and doubtless Richard believed these myths himself. The people of his class were held to be naturally criminal, small brained, ugly and beyond redemption.
Richard Hunt served his time in Sydney. He married a free-born woman, Lydia Barber, and had six children including, George Thomas Hunt, my great-great-grandfather. They lived in Parramatta, NSW. When Lydia died, Richard married Sarah Ellison and moved to Gundagai, where he worked at his trade as a saddler. They had five children. Richard was the Superintendent of the Gundagai Wesleyan Sunday School.
In 1852 a flood drowned Richard, Sarah and all their children, along with many others. The town of Gundagai was destroyed and rebuilt further up the hill on its present site.
Meanwhile, my great-great-grandfather, George Thomas Hunt, became respectable in Parramatta, assisting to found Leigh Memorial Methodist Church. Among George's children was John Charles Hunt, who became wealthy as an orchardist with properties in Parramatta and Dural. John Charles was my great-grandfather. He became a politician and was the local member for Parramatta.
Within two generations in my family, the myths that so many upper class British people believed about the lower classes were proven to be simply that. Myths. Since then Australian white society had developed from its criminal roots into one of the most law-abiding, safe and prosperous societies on earth.
How should I be judged if I cannot see that what was possible for the Hunt family is possible for all people, if only they have the chance to live in freedom and justice?
The Old Man
He was in his eighties. Conversations with him were always opportunities for him to offer his firm views on a wide variety of subjects. He was dogmatic, but his opinions were typical of many of his generation. If he was racist he was not consciously or intentionally so. Like so many Australians he had learned his racism unconsciously. The same way I had.
'What are we going to do about these Abos?' he asked. I greatly disliked the label Abos; it had become an alarm bell for prejudice. Few of my generation used it, preferring Aborigine or Aboriginal (although technically the latter was often misused as a noun). Younger people often referred to indigenous Australians as Kooris or Murris.
'What do you mean do?' I asked.
'This whole Mabo thing. I reckon they want too much.'
'Well, I don't know ...'
'You can't turn the clock back 200 years. What's been done has been done.'
'I agree. But I don't think anyone has asked for the clock to be turned back 200 years. I hear Aborigines asking for us to live and act responsibly with the knowledge of the oppression that has been there in our history', I suggested.
'When I was in Cairns I knew this Abo at Yarrabah' he responded. 'Best Abo I ever knew. A real white man, you know what I mean?' Regrettably, I did know what he meant. I toyed with the idea of attacking the concept of calling a black man a 'real white man' as if it were a compliment. Why do we value black culture and identity so little that we cannot honour a person by calling him a real black man? I bit my tongue and let it pass.
'This fellow said something once', he continued. 'He said that before white man came the Abos were nomadic and living off the land. But that was all gone now. They couldn't go back to that. But they couldn't become white men either. They couldn't go back, and they couldn't go forward.'
'He was a very wise man', I said.
'Some of these modern Abos aren't Abos at all, are they?'
'How do you mean?'
'Well, you look at 'em. If they have one great-grandma who was an Abo they reckon they're Abos. They hang onto any shred of it.'
'But so do we white people.'
'No, we don't."
'Well, I think we do. Judy (my wife) reckons she's a bit of a Scot because way back three or four generations her people came from Scotland. And I hang onto the fact that my great-great-great-grandfather was an English convict.'
'It's not the same.
'I think it's similar enough.'
He changed tack. 'We tried to do something for the Abos you know. I knew the matron at the Cairns Base Hospital. She was keen to get some Abo girls into nursing. One girl who had done really well in class at Yarrabah was keen to try and she was accepted. She lasted less than six months. She was doing all right and then she just left and went walkabout. Hopeless.'
'I reckon you have to answer the question asked by the "real white man" from Yarrabah', I said.
'What's that?' he asked.
'Until we realise that we are dealing with a people who have lost their sense of identity and community self-worth, we are going to continue to see these symptoms. You can't give education to a person who lacks self-esteem and expect them to stick with it. You can't build a house for a person without a sense of worthwhile identity and expect them to care for it. You can't tell someone to get their act together while at the same time you deny their right to affirm their Aboriginal heritage because ninety per cent of their genes came from white people. What we have to do is to answer your mate from Yarrabah's question: How can we restore Aboriginal identity and value and self-worth?'
The old man only stopped for a second. 'What about those Broncos? Don't you reckon that football team has got swelled heads?'